HOUSTON — For most players, back-to-back off shooting nights wouldn’t be enough to qualify as a slump. But Stephen Curry isn’t most players; he’s a two-time MVP, the most skilled high-volume marksman in NBA history, and a revolutionary offensive weapon.
Through the first two games of the Western Conference finals, Curry has searched for his shot and largely come up empty, hunting deep looks early in the clock, stepping into pull-ups in hopes of catching a rhythm, and going back for more following misses. It’s a stunning sight when the most bankable guy in the building is firing blanks. With very rare exceptions over the past four seasons, Curry has delivered like clockwork. His three-pointers key runs, launch comebacks, break backs and beat buzzers. More than anything, they establish supremacy. So much of Golden State’s aura of invincibility derives from Curry’s ridiculous range and the immense gravity it creates on the court.
When Curry gets going, there are trickle-down effects in every direction: complementary players find themselves open, extra passes turn good shots into great shots, and momentum builds. But for the second straight game, Curry didn’t have it going against Houston, and the trickle-down effects took place in reverse: the court shrank, Golden State’s passing became less fluid, and its attack turned sloppy and one-dimensional.
The Rockets defeated the Warriors 127-105 at the Toyota Center in Game 2 on Wednesday, taking full advantage of Curry’s errant shooting to even the series at one game apiece. After dropping Game 1, Houston responded with season-on-the-line desperation, and Golden State’s meek response amounted to a solo show from Kevin Durant. James Harden told reporters on Tuesday that he “couldn’t do it by [himself],” and Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon all answered his call. The Rockets led by as many as 29 points, suffocating the Warriors’ offense with focused activity and overwhelming the Warriors’ defense with a balanced and efficient approach.
Curry was the answer that the Warriors needed but never received. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but shot 7 of 19 from the floor and just 1 of 8 on three-pointers. Curry got to the line only once, committed two turnovers, and posted a minus–20 in 34 minutes.
“It obviously wasn't Steph's best night,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He struggled from the three-point line. Slow start for him. I thought in the second half he got a few things going. I'm not worried about Steph. He's the kind of competitor and player who will bounce back from a tough night.”
If Curry was overly bothered by his sub-standard performance, he didn’t show it, aside from a few exasperated claps after missed shots.
“No panic,” Curry said, fully composed at the podium. “No houses-on-fire type of mentality in our locker room. We're in pretty good shape right now.”
On the defensive end, Curry was targeted just like in Game 1, as Houston repeatedly looked to make him work and exploit his lack of size. While he performed credibly on that end, Golden State’s ability to go blow-for-blow with Houston’s offense depends on Curry dishing out as much as he takes.
That didn’t happen in Houston. During Game 1, Curry scored 18 points but hit just one of his five three-pointers. In Game 2, his 1-of-8 (12.5%) shooting on threes marked the lowest percentage mark of his postseason career. Over the span of 54 playoff games during Golden State’s runs to the last three Finals, Curry failed to hit at least two three-pointers on just two occasions total. By comparison, he’s already fallen short of that threshold twice in this series.
What’s more, the past two games mark the first time Curry has failed to score 20 points in back-to-back playoff games since the 2016 Finals against the Cavaliers, when he was playing through a knee sprain in a seven-game defeat.
Curry’s struggles, however temporary they prove to be, will therefore go under the microscope during the extended break before Game 3 on Sunday. After all, he is again working back from a knee sprain that sidelined him for the first round of the playoffs. While he has shown flashes of brilliance since returning during the conference semifinals, his consistency has wavered. In a small sample size, he’s shooting 36% on threes during the 2018 postseason, five points off his career postseason average (41%).
The framing question as the series shifts to Oakland is simple: Were these two off nights in Houston merely blips on Curry’s reliable radar, or are they indications that something is amiss?
Kerr told reporters during the second-round series against the Pelicans that Curry was still trying to get his legs. Then, after Game 1 on Monday, Curry responded to a question about whether he sustained a “tweak” by suggesting that he was physically bothered by something, noting that it “doesn’t really matter” because it’s the postseason and “you’ve got to keep playing.” He then added, “It’s a situation where I’m going to be out there hopefully regardless of what happens.”
Pressed for his condition on Wednesday night, Curry firmly refused to offer excuses.
“I'm feeling great,” he said. “I didn't find a rhythm early. I had some decent looks from three that could have changed the momentum of the game early in the first half. But for the most part it was just a frustrating night all the way around.”
To be clear, this wasn’t a matter of Curry deferring for the sake of the offense or to feed the hot hand. Just two Warriors finished in double figures, and Klay Thompson failed to replicate his strong Game 1 performance. Curry showed signs of life in the second half, attacking off the dribble to get to the hoop on multiple occasions. With Golden State’s attack grinding down, though, some of these forays resulted in contested and forced shots.
The collective result: Durant looked to pick up everyone’s slack, scoring 38 points on 22 shots and finishing with zero assists against five turnovers. Houston again had no answer for him defensively, but his onslaught wasn’t enough to prevent a clear role reversal. In Game 1, Golden State survived a big night from Harden because his supporting cast didn’t show up. In Game 2, Houston survived Durant for the same reason.
That framing is problematic for the Warriors, who don’t usually deal in “cast” terms when operating at their egalitarian best. Kerr referred to Durant’s shot-making as “the ultimate luxury” following Game 1, but Wednesday served as a reminder that luxuries aren’t intended to be everyday devices. Neither team will prevail in this series via Hero-ball and ball-watching, and it’s up to Curry to restore the proper balance and pace to Golden State’s attack.
“[Durant] has been amazing,” Curry said. “He's making plays. He's aggressive. I think we all need to feed off of that focus and that determination. … He made a lot of tough shots and great plays to keep us close. If he can continue to do what he does—I'll shoot the ball better and play better defense, other guys will get involved, and we'll be in great shape.”